The long history of my minister-mouth getting me into trouble dates back to a month or two after September 11. I was serving as a full-time associate pastor in a large UCC. I was pregnant with our first child. And given what had just happened in New York, Pennsylvania and DC, and that the planes carrying those terrorists originated just a few miles from my home, I was anxious about the world he was going to be born into.
I was also angry that George Bush and his cronies were capitalizing on the fear of terrorism for their own political purposes in the Middle East. As the slow chunk-chunk-chunk of the war machine got lubricated and started up again, with sprightly newcasters nightly regurgitating the fiction of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and warning us that war was imminent, I took to the streets.
Unfortunately, the “streets” in my small, bucolic town on the north shore of Boston, MA were peopled with custom pillow shops and old-school seafood restaurants hawking the $7.95 scrod early bird special. Not exactly ground zero for the revolution.
Still, wherever there are salty Catholic nuns and Quakers, which is to say: almost everywhere, there is a religious and social conscience and a starter kit for awakening the wider consciousness. God guided me toward those nuns and Quakers, and every Sunday night at 6pm, we began gathering across from the scrod restaurant, holding candles and signs that said “Pray for Peace.” We didn’t scream invective. We barely spoke at all. We were a mostly silent witness, willing to gently engage anyone who wanted to have a conversation about what we stood for. As each Sunday evening passed, my belly grew, night fell earlier and earlier, and the war machine roared to life.
Some outspoken members of my congregation were agitated by my mildest of activism. They were threatened enough that they found other people who were unhappy with the color of my toenail polish, or my most recent sermon topic, or the fact that I was pregnant and going out on maternity leave (though they couldn’t, legally, put it quite that way), and together formed an angry cadre of the wronged. They wrote a petition, unspecific in its claims, stating that I did not follow the Bible and was not the dignified portrait of a minister they wanted or expected, and called for a congregational meeting (read: inquisition).
The congregation, on the whole, was not conservative, but they were anxious in the face of conflict, and did what congregations often do in this situation: they gave the complainers a lot of time and energy in “listening sessions” as they tried to figure out what to do, and tried to appease them back to equilibrium. Often, the way equilibrium is regained in churches is by firing the identified patient: i.e. the minister.
I was pregnant. I lived in a parsonage. It was Christmas, for goodness sake! I couldn’t leave in a huff. I had to stay and see how the situation played out. One of my dear minister friends, incensed at their behavior, said “It’s Christmas, and you’re Mary, and they are saying there’s no room in the inn! I’m coming over right now to kick them in the shins!”
Even my pastor-parish relations committee, which was ostensibly formed to facilitate healthy communication between pastor and flock and also support the clergy emotionally and spiritually, remonstrated with me over my candle-holding ways. “What are you doing out there on Sunday nights? You are not supporting our President. You are embarrassing our church. You represent us!”
I pulled myself up with as much dignity as a 36-weeks pregnant person with terrible indigestion can manage and said, “I am out there on my own time, and I don’t, in fact, represent you. I represent the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I don’t want to meet Jesus at the end of my days, and have him look me in the eye with sorrow and shame because I didn’t have the moral courage to proclaim His gospel as He is communicating it to me in the face of an unjust war.”[I know I sound like the hero of this story. It is, after all, my version of events. I’m not always so measured and articulate especially when angry, but I swear this is how I remember it, and I credit God with giving me the words at the time]
In a way, I’m grateful I was pregnant at the time. I couldn’t cut and run. I had to stay, breathe, dig deep to find my non-anxious presence, pray a LOT, ask the Holy Spirit to give me the words to say when in difficult meetings I just wanted to tear them to pieces with SAT-vocab and my cutting, irrefutable theological arguments.
Holy Spirit provided, night after epic church-meeting night. Angels came to my rescue: drinking buddies took me out for beers and cusswords, my seminary mentor talked me through pregame strategy (“get your feelings out of the way OUTSIDE of Church Council meetings so that you can be the most mature person in the room when you are with them”), my sweet husband got ripshit at the haters so I could work at forgiving them instead, while holding them accountable for their words.
And slowly, slowly, God called the more or less healthy, large-but-less-vociferous core of the church back to sanity. Privately, people began saying to me: Who cares what color toenail polish you wear? And yes, of course I believe in the freedom of the pulpit. And: you know we can’t wait to welcome your baby, and we know you deserve time to heal and care for your baby, the same kind of time we empty-nesters had for our babies.
But more importantly, slowly, slowly, they found calm, kind, firm ways to articulate their differing opinions, in public: the hard but beautiful work of self-differentiation. They honored that the naysayers were unhappy and frightened. They acknowledged that the world was changing and their church was changing along with it. But they were clear that while I was a symbol of that change, I was not the cause of every growing pain, and they were able to say to the naysayers: “We love you. And we disagree with you. And in here, we can disagree and still love each other.”
There would be no congregational meeting. Gradually, the 12 people who had signed the petition slipped back into their pews, or out the back door, to leave for a while or forever. Some kept noisily complaining, but when it became clear their ideas and opinions weren’t gaining traction, they became background noise, growing more marginalized as the community cohered around a common vision. Some of the 12 even (eventually) apologized to me.
For my part, even though the experience was exhausting, emotionally challenging, and at times made me lose heart for this congregation, I am ultimately so glad the process unfolded in the way they did. I learned how mentally tough I could be (and how patient! Whoda thunk!). The congregation learned how to increase their capacity to be a non-anxious presence, to work through differences in a healthy way, and to establish behavioral covenants so they could keep any future kerfuffle from blowing up into a church-killing conflict.
On Sunday nights, I kept on holding a candle for peace on the street corner. And come spring, I brought my new baby to the big protests downtown, so he, too, could learn a better way to fight.
The Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette is the Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Berkeley and a Senior Consultant for The Center for Progressive Renewal.